Nothing to Fear

I’m afraid of the lions. They’re out there and I know it because I saw them, just over the hill behind our tent. The tents, though sturdy, aren’t fenced in, aren’t protected from anything out there. Actually, there isn’t an out there. Or more accurately, everywhere is out there.

These were my thoughts as we sat (like sitting ducks, I fretted) one evening in the Kalahari on a hill overlooking a watering hole in the dry Auob river bed. The heat was overwhelming as the leaves of the nearby camel thorn tree rustled slightly, dispersing the tree’s distinctively sour odour. It would be a scent I would grow homesick for when we left it behind. 

The riverbed seemed to be holding its breath – the calm before the storm. Purple clouds gathered behind the red bush-studded hills on all sides. The 15 tents that comprise the camp seemed to hunch down into the sandy hill, alone, waiting. The storms of the previous three nights, unusual in their intensity, seemed set to roll in again. Thunder rumbled low and deep in the distance, sounding suspiciously similar to the roar of a great cat. I looked around nervously, ready to run inside and close the doors at the slightest hint of lightening or lion.

Earlier that day, we had come upon three lions lazing in the shade of a tree right in the middle of the dirt road. A number of other 4x4s had already stopped to sit and watch them, and take pictures. Sensing that the lions were too hot and too relaxed to pounce, some people had rolled their windows down. All the better to get a good photo. Eventually, even I did the same. 

But that was in the heat. In the cool of the evening as first a herd of springbok accompanied by a pack of jackals, then wildebeest, gemsbok and even four stately giraffes all made their way to the watering hole, it seemed only a matter of time before the lions crept past and prepared to pounce. 

And why would they bother with something that might actually get away, something that would require stealth, hunting, effort? Why not just pluck us from our tent? It didn’t help that the park ranger had mentioned during his rounds that evening that the lions had passed by our tent a few evenings earlier, or that they had apparently laid down just under the tree in front of our window.

“What time should we go inside, then?” I asked, trying to determine the level of danger without appearing ridiculously “city.”

“You can stay out here,” was the answer, “unless they do appear. Then you should go inside until they pass by.”

I began this trip convinced I’d be eaten by a hyena that would, I imagined, rip though the tent. I also had quite vibrant fears related to poisonous snakes. There were many times during the trip that I was sure our vehicle wouldn’t make it through the backcountry gravel – and often washed out – roads. But I saw neither snake nor hyena on the entire 11 day 4000km trip through four national and transfrontier (crossing borders with Botswana and Namibia) parks.

The most danger we ever actually faced was on the last day when our SUV did get stuck in seven feet of sand where a river had washed out a section of the Augrabies Park road. With no phone reception to call the ranger for help, my husband and I tried everything, digging the wheels out with our hands and building ramps from river stones and branches. Finally, in the midday desert heat, my husband set off on foot towards the rest camp 25 km away, leaving my son and I to wait with the vehicle. Though I imagined everything from strangers kidnapping us  for trafficking purposes to the car overheating, I managed to keep these thoughts to myself. After an hour, my husband and a ranger truck appeared and we were pulled out of the sand. In other words, nothing really happened. 

It’s probably asking for trouble to take someone who suffers from anxiety into the place where humans developed the fight-or-flight response. Foolish, or wise. Perhaps my husband thought it would cure me. 

It didn’t.

But I did survive and my memories are of the stunning beauty, the distinctive scents and the amazing animals, not the fear. So I guess that’s something. 

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On fear and adventure

I’m getting ready to head off again
the intrepid traveller trailing red push pins across a map
signifying places visited, fears conquered.
I’m affraid, as always,
of the unknown, the imagined,
seeking adventure I cower from mind-made terrors;
is this how we grow stronger,
surviving what doesn’t kill us,
or is it just me, the way I think,
holding myself back as I tie myself in uneeded knots?

I’ll let you know when I return (if)
from red-gold sands striped with animal tracks –
jackal and lion, snake and cheetah and more.

As I lie unsleeping, unblinking, wide-eyed, in a tent
under a vast network of desert stars,
only canvas separating me from the wild,
I will think of you, of this, of home,
I will remember standing here
writing in my cocoon of boredom and safety
and only then – under the stars in a distant, foreign night –
will this faint excitement, these captured butterflies,
feel tame.

Unfettered: The story of an evolving relationship

It has been many, many years since my son stayed overnight at his father’s. Many years since I’ve trusted my ex enough to let him have our son more than the allotted five hours. Many years since I’ve referred to my child as “ours” and meant someone other than my current husband. In fact, he hasn’t stayed overnight there since I won full custody, reduced access to five hours every two weeks and changed my son’s last name to mine. That was all five years ago. Half my son’s life ago.

It hasn’t even been very long that my son has been seeing his father, this time around. After mostly two years of his father being unreliable and absent, my son decided he had no interest in seeing him either. It was only Father’s Day 2015 that my son asked to see him again following eight months of unexplained refusal.

While I don’t know what changed my son’s mind, I can say that as far as my ex goes, things have vastly improved ever since February when he and his partner had a baby. I wouldn’t say I fully trust him – people don’t change – but I don’t feel terror at the thought of our son staying with him anymore, and that’s saying something. For now, he’s in a better place in his life and his mind and  I can’t really justify refusing to let our son stay with him. In fact, it was me who started involving him more in our son’s life again. I even organized this weekend for both of them.

I hope he doesn’t prove me wrong. I hope he doesn’t fall apart while our son is still a child, still vulnerable.

As awful as things were at their worst – lies, drinking, stealing, erratic behaviour – when he’s stable, my ex is charming, fun and able to run a business and a house. He can be a warm, relaxed person. They bond over a shared love of soccer and their shared experience on this earth, however limited it has been.

I’m happy about that. I hope that it will continue. It’s good for our son to feel unconflicted between both parents, to feel he can go back and forth between both households without incident. To spend time with both of us – and his new sister.

So, at the very early hour of 8:00 am Saturday, I packed him off for a day and a half.

My son is my heart and soul, just as much a part of me as my own limbs. Yet, he is also the independent person I have taught him to be. He is able to stand on his own, speak up for himself, and go off and do things and make his own way – the way of an only child. At 8 years old, he chose to go to sleepaway camp for 26 nights straight and he did just fine (survivable homesickness aside). He flies alone to visit his grandparents in Toronto. He walks into all sorts of situations on his own, introduces himself and gets involved. So though we’re very close and I miss him, I know he’s ok away from home.

Still, when it comes to his father, I worry. And it’s more than the man himself. There’s so much all parties invest in a parental relationship, so many hopes and expectations. Especially one as complex and fraught as this one.

It doesn’t help that I’m naturally anxious and a worrier.

I must have kept myself sanely busy, though, because here I am now, about to go pick him up.

I’m surprised to find myself looking forward to hearing all about the house, his new sister, his time with the other part of his family. I don’t feel the expected pang of regret or sadness or even fear. I just want him to be happy, to have had the weekend he was looking forward to. And I’m sure he did.

It is so much easier to abandon the angst, fear and outrage, to leave the bad of the past in the past and, while still watching out for my son, finally move forward, unfettered.

Surrender to the Wind*

source: cfr.org, Joe Penney/Reuters

The wind is wailing. At home, that always meant the weather was changing. It was exciting because the land would be refreshed, we would be refreshed.

Here, the wind signifies nothing. It never stops. It wails through the spaces between the tents in the camp, this place that all of us now call home, as though it’s accusing us of being in its way. Sometimes, it blows a few tents down, scattering the last remnants of their occupants’ lives.

I try not to think about all of this during the day. Life goes on and there is much to be done; water gathering, cooking, looking after the younger ones. But it hits me at night, stinging my eyes like grains of sand in the wind. Even worse, I know that the militia could come for us at any time. They live among us, our attackers, and we, like fish trapped in an ocean rock pool, are easy prey for them as they move freely between the shadows.

I know I should stay put, especially at night, but I can’t keep lying here, listening and waiting. I need to know what’s going on beyond these flimsy walls. I need to know whether anyone is out there.

The wind and the slap-slap-slapping of the faded tarps drown out the sounds of my footsteps as I cross the packed earthen floor. I peek through the tent opening, looking up and down our narrow row. It is one of thousands that criss-cross the sea of matching tents. The moon is full, so it should be easier to see, but it glows red through the clouds of sand kicked up by the wind.

Our row is empty. I watch for a while, expecting a hooded figure to appear at any moment, its machete or rifle flashing in the moonlight. I think about lying back down but something – the moon, perhaps – tugs at me, drawing me out into the windy night.

I pick my way along the row, pausing whenever I think I hear something, or when a new row joins mine. I’m so busy listening and watching and imagining shadows into being that I don’t notice I’ve turned down a path I’ve never taken before.

It’s not until a few minutes later that I find myself, improbably, at the end. The end of the unfamiliar row, the end of the camp, the end of the wall of tents where the wind howls unhindered as though it was the end of the earth.

My breath catches in my throat. At the front of the camp, the only other part of the perimeter I’ve been to, there is always a flurry of activity; aid workers, registration desks, food being handed out, people gathering. But that is miles away.

Here, there is nothing. The red, dry, dustiness spreads out before me, from the tips of my toes to as far as I can see. There are no trees, no huts, no roads, not even a footprint. Just the red moon, hanging low over the western edge of the sky – on its way to America – and the first golden light of morning leaking over the eastern horizon. And me, at the edge.

I stretch out my foot and press it down into the earth, leaving a single footprint.

I don’t think I can find my way home, so I sit down and wait for the sun to rise.

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* Title is a quote from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon

Written in Stone

Seven hills surround our valley. If you climb to the top of the highest one, you come out on a rock overlooking everything. Even the eagles fly below you. I don’t make it up that high very often; it takes ages to get there and it’s rare that I manage to slip away for that long. But when I do, it’s worth any trouble that might be waiting for me upon my return.

Some say the land beyond our valley is desert. Others believe there are more green valleys like ours over the ridges. But I don’t think anyone knows for sure; you can’t even see that far from the hilltop.

Our people were once nomadic but after the great disaster they settled in this valley and stayed here. The elders have warned each successive generation not to venture beyond our hills. When Lana did, several generations ago, she didn’t return. They have used that as a cautionary tale ever since. No one has ever told us what the great disaster was and I’ve never heard anyone explain which dangers await us out there. Perhaps they don’t know the answer to those questions, either. Still, no one since Lana has dared to find out.

Most of our people, even those my age, seem content to live the life they have been born into. But every now and then, a restless one comes along. They are the dreamers and the seers; valuable but also troublemakers. Lana was a restless one. And I think I am, too. The worst I’ve done, though, is to climb above the eagles.

Those eagles! Their wings are like burnished copper as they glide between the blue of the sky and the green of our valley. I often imagine how it would feel to fly with them, to lie flat on an eagle’s back, arms outstretched across its wings, eyes streaming in the wind. I wonder how far they fly, whether they have seen the other valleys, or the deserts.

Today, I was lost in my daydream when I realized the sun was slipping behind the hills. It was too late to make it back before dark but I ran like the wind anyway, jumping from rock to rock, the trees rushing past me.

I must have taken a wrong turn because I almost slammed into a wall of stone. My hand traced its contours as I moved along it, hoping to come upon the path again. Instead, I found the entrance to a cave. I knew I would only become more lost at night, so I decided to shelter inside until morning.

I built a fire to keep warm. As the flames grew and my eyes adjusted, I noticed markings on the cave walls. Intrigued, I got up to inspect them. Someone had painted pictures all around the cave. They seemed to sparkle in the light of the fire.

I recognized our valley, as seen from the top of the rock-crested hill. People were tilling the land between the streams, like my people do. I saw the same huts we have now. As I moved around the cave, I saw other valleys spreading out from ours. The final picture was of a tall hill, two valleys away. Fire, lightning and stars shot into the sky from its summit. Thick mud rolled down its hillsides, smothering the surrounding land, turning valleys into deserts.

I didn’t know hills could do that.

Finally, I understood why the elders were so afraid. It was all there, spelled out before me; our history written in stone.